SAN FRANCISCO (AP)—The Miami Dolphins spent the holiday week eating room service food and practicing thousands of miles from home, all to prove they were the best of the NFL’s worst two teams.
And for the first time in Miami’s dismal season, something went according to plan.
Randy McMichael caught a 15-yard touchdown pass with 10:35 to play, and the 49ers fumbled five times in the fourth quarter of the Dolphins’ 24-17 victory Sunday, leaving hapless San Francisco as the league’s only one-win team.
It was the game of the weak, the battle of the bads—a meeting of two once-proud franchises brought to historic lows by injuries, infighting, poor management and insufficient talent.
After last week’s loss at Seattle, the Dolphins holed up in San Francisco for a second training camp of sorts. Largely thanks to its stifling defense, Miami finished its road trip at .500.
“If we would have lost this game after spending six days in San Francisco, it would have been really miserable,” said cornerback Patrick Surtain, who recovered two fumbles. “To come out here with a win, even though these guys are 1-9, we showed a lot of heart. It was huge for us, and hopefully we can build on this.”
San Francisco’s surreal inability to hold on to the ball was the most eye-catching part of a game decidedly lacking in artistry, from the 16 punts to the seemingly endless series of gaffes and stumbles. Miami (2-9) snapped its three-game losing streak with just 200 total yards.
Capped by Derrick Pope’s 1-yard fumble return for the clinching touchdown with 3:10 left, the Dolphins scored 17 points off San Francisco’s fumbles in the fourth quarter to get the first victories for interim coach Jim Bates and starting quarterback A.J. Feeley.
Hopefully, Bates—the Dolphins’ defensive coordinator until Dave Wannstedt’s resignation two weeks ago—will remember only his unit’s strong performance, which included eight sacks, and not the ineptitude of just about everything and everybody else.
“A lot of teams, when you are 1-9, you will not see the determination and effort week in and week out that we have given,” Bates said. “It is special to be part of this group.”
Miami held San Francisco to 228 yards—69 on a desperate last-minute drive culminating in Maurice Hicks’ score with 37 seconds left.
Tim Rattay passed for 181 yards and fumbled three times for the 49ers (1-10), who lost their sixth straight and surged past Miami for the inside track on the top pick in next April’s draft. They’ve also got an excellent shot at the worst record in franchise history: the Niners went 2-14 in 1978 and 1979.
Once again, coach Dennis Erickson was baffled to see his offense waste an outstanding performance by the defense. Rattay’s offensive line seems to regress with every game, and expected stars Kevan Barlow and Brandon Lloyd have been invisible.
“I don’t care who you have playing, you can’t operate like we’re operating,” he said. “We all feel helpless, sure. This is just not the way I envisioned us functioning on offense. We have no rhythm. It’s been a mess, there isn’t any other way to put it.”
Fittingly for these teams, the game turned on turnovers. San Francisco linebacker Derek Smith returned a fumble 46 yards for his first career touchdown early in the fourth quarter for a 10-7 lead, but Surtain recovered Hicks’ fumble moments later.
Miami reached the 1, then lost 14 yards—and McMichael still slipped between two defenders in the end zone for his fourth TD catch of the season.
“In the fourth quarter, it’s the same old story,” Smith said. “We give the ball away. You can’t win if you make those mistakes.”
Rattay fumbled on consecutive plays on the 49ers’ next drive, losing the second one to set up a 50-yard field goal by Olindo Mare, who missed a 30-yarder earlier.
Rattay then fumbled while getting hit in the end zone, and Pope scored untouched with 3:10 left.
One play after dislocating his finger in the first quarter, Feeley threw a 25-yard touchdown pass to Chris Chambers. Feeley danced in agony when he was hurt, but his battered body finally felt better afterward.
“I don’t know how I got the ball to Chris,” Feeley said. “I want to see the replay, because I couldn’t grip it. I don’t know if I shot-putted it out there or what. When you win games, it makes the pain go to the back of your head.”
Miami LB Zach Thomas suited up despite a hamstring injury, but sat out most of the game. The five-time Pro Bowl player missed two days of practice earlier in the week. … Miami still can’t run the ball. Travis Minor rushed for 47 yards while starting in place of Sammy Morris.